The Blessing of Insecurity


I believe insecurity is good for the shooting process. When you are out in the world with your digital camera and see something, you raise the camera, frame, and make a photograph. Nine times out of ten, you will look at the screen and respond to what you see previewed there and maybe try again. You might repeat this process three or four times before you «see» the result you want or expect on the screen. Then you move on.

When shooting with film, obviously you don’t have the benefit of seeing the results immediately, so you work with some degree of insecurity, having no idea if you «got it». Actually, the thought of «I got it» isn’t part of the equation at all. The instinct is more to stay within the relationship you established when you responded to something in the first place. You keep working, shooting, and keep trying as many variations as your attention allows. Your attention is not continuously shifting between the world and your tools.

I was brought up with film, so to speak; therefore, it’s been natural for me to adapt a similar opus operandi when shooting digital. What I have noticed in my own process is that photographs that interest me on my contact sheets or in the editing of the shoot later on are often far from what had grabbed my attention initially. Most are the seventh, eight or later variation into the investigation.

With this in mind, you should ask yourself if, by being able to look at your results immediately, you are just confirming what you immediately responded to and capturing what you expect? Or are you actually using the «preview» as a tool to keep working and to discover something transcendent, beyond your expectation? There is capacity for both to happen. You just need to avoid the feeling of self-satisfaction that disrupts the shooting and results in only the former and not the latter.

Another argument for not looking at the preview screen during the shooting process is the fact that you take your eyes off the subject when doing so. You might actually miss the Picture with capital P because of this defocus. (I wrote about this in my post A Curse and a Blessing).

I would like to suggest shooting photographs without looking at them in the moment. Work with a bit of insecurity lingering over your shoulder and see what happens. Put black tape over the preview screen if the draw to look at it is too great—which of course requires that you have a viewfinder to see what you actually shoot (or you can even playing with not seeing what you photograph. You are maybe in for an interesting surprise).

Do you use the preview screen all the time? Or do you take chances and turn it off?

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX7 using a 4.7 zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/1000 of a second. Aperture: f/2.8. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.


77 thoughts on “The Blessing of Insecurity

  1. No…it only attracts my attention when it flashes like mad and I have obviously not set the exposure properly, which can happen when I get over excited and thing that here is my chance of a lifetime!!! Ha, ha, that feeling wanes soon enough. Good article and so wise and true.

  2. I also photographed on film for dacades before switching to digital. Thus, I use the preview quite seldom. Although, I’m on digital for about 7 years now, I still don’t use it regular.

  3. Great post, Otto! I often find myself taking pictures with quite a lot of unintentional insecurity – I don’t have a viewfinder on my camera at all, so rely solely on the live screen view for composition, and in bright sunlight that can mean effectively taking shots pretty much ‘blind’, then being unable to check them immediately afterwards. On those days I usually find that my resulting images are a lot better than I’d thought they would be, which is always a nice surprise 🙂

  4. I prefer not to take the time out. I may briefly check now and then for exposure (I shot in manual). I usually get what I want in the viewfinder; therfore, no need to see it again on the screen. I enjoy looking it over in post. So I agree with you.

  5. This is a very smart look at things. The idea of standing in relationship to what you are taking a picture of is central here—versus just “getting it.” Insecurity in any art process is the experience; it’s not shoot a picture, choreograph a dance, write a story, make a song by [digital] numbers. Rather than banning or trouncing digital photography altogether, however, you suggest a way, or at least raise consciousness to the awareness that a bit of fumbling, a bit of doubt is also complemented by the wonder and awe and curiosity that came along or struck one in the first place, and how to keep this very human interplay the essential part and player in the moment of creation. The sign that one has shot a good picture is generally in the aftermath—when one sees “a-ha!” in the photo stuff one didn’t even see or notice in its taking, just as moments in a story written come up later on that the writer didn’t even realize had been put there, and just how nicely they chime along almost perfectly, as if planned, with the rest of piece already written. Had they, however, been “framed out” beforehand, one would only be the composer of one’s own forgery. Doing such, too, with digital photography would be the equivalent of the same—a mere product in which one has really stepped out of the relationship and made what amounts to an advertisement for others to admire, buy, etc.

    1. Great comment. I really like your way of putting it: “being the composer of one’s own forgery”. You point is adding to my post in that it’s about catering for an experience of playfulness and interplay. By doing so we open for new experiences that we did know of beforehand. If we only do what we already know, nothing new comes out of the process. Thank you for your poignant comment, Egbert.

  6. I never look at my screen when out with my camera; I learned that early on when I started in photography, and stopped doing that as I became a little more secure in what I was doing. I’ll take more than one shot, sometimes several, but that’s it. This has made me more careful in framing and lining up my shot in the moment. I find it great fun to get home and go through my photos then.
    Hope you have a good week!

  7. I look at the preview screen, but a lot of the time I am checking the histogram to make sure I’m on track with exposure. I like this idea though, and will give it a go.

    1. Histograms are valuable, but I think sometimes we just need to trust ourselves—and open up ourselves for surprises. I hope you will enjoy trying not to look at the preview screen. 🙂

  8. I also come from old school film days and use the preview screen to check my histogram and original composition then I don’t pay much attention to to it. Your post is thought provoking as always, thank you.

  9. I seldom use the preview screen unless I’m doing something “tricky,” such as a still life with very shallow depth of field, when I might check to see if I actually got the focus where I wanted it. Normally I use the viewfinder and shoot as I would with film…except for taking many more shots, of course. That’s both the strength and perhaps the weakness of digital photography for me!

    1. I agree. It’s great to be able to shoot a lot of frames, but sometimes that makes us lazy. Just like the preview screens. It’s not either or, but a give and take, isn’t. Thank you for taking part in the discussion.

  10. Ah, ha! The two previous commenters have mentioned the histogram, which has been a mystery to newbie-me, and which may be an answer to my problems with exposure: after I figure it out.

    Since getting a camera with an optical viewfinder, I rarely use the preview screen. In the beginning I did, but I found that, particularly in bright sunlight, it didn’t give me any indication at all of whether things were in focus, or whether my exposure settings were right. For purposes of learning, it was far better to come home, pick out the best and worst photos, and then see which settings I’d used. Since my compositional skills are fairly good, that’s never been a problem. The viewfinder is enough for that.

    I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to watch a professional photo shoot — cars and human models — where I was working. It was amazing to watch the photographer. She did check the preview screen from time to time, but I’m sure she shot a hundred photos for every time she stopped. I had a sense that exposure was her concern, since every time she stopped to examine the camera, she’d make a change in the position of the people holding light reflectors, and so on. It was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen.

    1. Yes, sounds like she was very professional (although I personally know many professional photographers who keep looking at the preview screen). I do the same, if I check the preview it’s for exposure not for composition. Furthermore, you are not alone to have felt at bay when it comes to the histogram, but once you start to understand it, it’s a valuable tool to access the exposure. Thank you for sharing your experience, Linda.

  11. An interesting post as always Otto and an enjoyable read. I don’t use the preview screen.
    when I shoot my subject I get totally wrapped up in it, I click the shutter, with a remote so I’m not even at the viewfinder. It’s when I get to Lightroom and I have that film strip that invariably, just like when one looks at contact sheets, my eye is drawn to one or two pictures and as you point out, the pictures that capture you attention are frequently not the picture you expected. There is obviously merit in checking your histograms, ensuring, you’re not clipping highlights but again, one can get overly absorbed in the process of producing a ‘correct’ exposure while completely missing the picture that really counts. To me photography is about the emotion and the engagement with the subject and you can’t really do that if you’re attention is too focused on the technical aspect of the photograph or if you’re glued to the preview screen. I truly believe that you have to shoot from the ‘gut’, it’s why I use a remote, my attention is on what I want to photograph, the camera is merely the tool I use to transform emotion and feeling that I experience in the field to something tangible I can take away from the experience.

    1. I am very much like you, believing engaging photos are created by the engagement the photographer has with the subject. And anything that distracts from this engagement is distracting the creative process. As such technique will always be in the way. Thus, the more technique can be handle unconsciously the better. Thank you for sharing your vast experience on the topic, Adrian.

  12. Great topic, Otto. I like your film perspective and how it relates to digital preview. I have come to distrust my previews. My close vision is not good. If I wear bifocals, they don’t seem to work well with the view finder. So I usually take a bunch of photos, hoping something will work. I know I should have a vision before I snap, and I try to do that, but for me all the preview does is let me know how far off my exposure is. Later, after the moment has passed, I delete the noticeably bad images. And then, after I upload to the computer where I can really see what I’ve got, then I can delete more images.

    1. I don’t think vision is related to the use of preview. On the contrary I believe you execute your vision in the moment you click the shutter—and I believe you do have a vision before you take a photo as you still need to make framing decisions as well as when to push the shutter release. Thank you for your comment, Linda.

  13. I do not have experience with film but I can understand about there is no instant feedback. Those are good points about trying to shoot with the tape on the preview screen. I think it depends what you are shooting. For live event, that makes a whole lot of sense. For non-action related shooting, quick review lets you correct errors, better framing, trying different exposures, different depth of field. The bad pictures can be removed out immediately (yes, flash space is cheap but some case you need to get as much on the card too).

    1. I would always be very careful about deleting any photos directly in the camera. The preview screen is not suitable to judge photos, really. It gives you some help, but for editing purposes only a big screen can give full justice to a photo. However, I do understand the need to use the full capacity of memory cards. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience.

  14. I actually don’t often look at the screen after taking a shot, but i suppose that i WOULD look at the screen if the shot was important to me… but what with my philosophy of being bad at what i do, it makes looking at the screen not needed 🙂

  15. I do use the preview screen for different reasons. To check the focus, especially when I shoot macros and have to get really close; to actually frame the picture when using an unusual angle or point of view, e.g. on the ground or over my head; when there’s to much light or wind to make sure I saw things right and don’t got any flying hair in the frame; to double check that I got important lines straight in a minimalistic detail shot. And sometimes also just to check if something I saw works as a picture at all. On the other hand, I really like not really knowing what I’ll get at the end when I’m shooting film and am usually choosing different subjects. Sometimes I want as much control as possible and other times I don’t care that much and just want to have fun 🙂

    1. Sounds like you have found the perfect solution for this dual approach; film when you don’t want control and digital capturing when you need maximum control. 🙂

  16. This is something I had never really thought about at all before. Like you, many years of my photography was in the film era and the wait for the results could be tantalizing. I am actually very bad about not checking the back screen for blown highlights and reviewing my shots. It seldom occurs to me to, and I am aware that in some people’s eyes that marks me out as not paying enough attention! In my defence I would say (as you do) that when I am caught up in the process of shooting I really don’t want the distraction of looking at the screen; and because it doesn’t look sharp unless I search for my glasses (!), I get all the wrong messages. In fact two weeks ago I did keep checking the screen while shooting mainly because I was shooting into the light and needed to check if I was under-exposing enough but nothing looked sharp and I got quite depressed about the images I was capturing. But back home they were all sharp – I rest my case!

    1. And I won’t argue against you. Again, I think this comes naturally for anyone used to photographing with film. It certainly doesn’t make much sense to check the preview screen, if you can’t see it anyway. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience, Andy, always appreciated.

  17. I’ve gotten myself in the habit of using the screen very little. I don’t trust the LCD many times because it’s composed of light pixels. What seems bright, detailed and proportioned often comes out the complete opposite when downloaded to computer or printed.

  18. I still look at what I shot right afterwards, but more for technical reasons. For instance, often the built-in metering in the camera does not produce the exposure I want. Then I have to make some adjustments up or down. Only by looking at the image I just took or using ‘live view’ can I determine the exact exposure.

  19. I do not look at the screen and I do not delete any photos until I have seen them on the computer. And I do love the surprise possibility…It has happened more than once that I have been positively happy over photos I thought hopeless. Good discussion again.

  20. I started photography with analog camera thus, when using a digital camera, I just take my chances and hardly see the preview. Especially when taking pictures underwater..It’s tricky, as we might miss interesting fish or weird species if we kept looking at the preview screen 🙂

    Great topic, Otto!

    1. Yes, underwater photography is an animal of its own. It would take away too much focus if one needs to check the screen all the time, doesn’t it. Thank you for sharing your experience, Indah.

  21. Jag använder min skärm för att kolla av och justera rätt ofta men om något spännande och oväntat händer så blir det oftast en chansning. Tycker jag lärt mig mycket av att läsa av alla dessa icke planerade exponeringar och fortsätter att ta vara på oväntade tillfällen.
    Önskar dig en fin sommar Otto.

  22. For me, the key is to live the event, to the shoting and view after, to sort either on the screen of the APN or on the computer

  23. I tend to think of the photographic process rather like a conversation. The subject makes a ‘comment’ that interests me, but I don’t just repeat what has been said. I take the thought away and assimilate and digest the idea(s) before shaping my final thoughts. I have little interest in a straight imitation and continue the ‘dialogue’ in the processing stage. Of course, in the ‘film days’ the processing limitations were much more limited and restricting.

    1. I like the idea of getting involved in a conversation with the subject, because that’s exactly what happens with the photographer does something more than just capturing whatever he or she sees. Thank you for the comment, Louis.

  24. While I sometimes look at the photo on the screen I also look forward to seeing it ‘properly’ when I download it…I’ve had friends who delete photos after looking at them on the screen which I always think is such a shame because they may be eliminating their best shot. Another interesting post Otto!

  25. Great post, Otto.
    I often take many photos – and do not see them until later.
    And if it’s people I photograph, it takes attention and focus from these if you stand and look at the screen instead of looking at the people you are photographing.
    And it’s nice to be surprised when you sit and watch pictures on your PC, which you had not expected!

      1. Well, we couldn’t check each image as we made it. We learned to trust ourselves and the tools. And, maybe most importantly, we practiced a lot.

  26. A sure shot way of bringing in more discipline and rigor in your photographic process. More than anything else, being unable to look at the result immediately, forces you to be more thoroughly aware of all the elements that make up a photograph.

  27. Wonderful post! I’m currently writing about 4 steps to get rid of that insecurity so it’s nice to get some inspiration from other blogs. Mostly really refreshing to read about it from this point of view! I might ping back to it in an upcoming post if that’s okay!

    Keep it up 🙂

      1. Thank you Otto, I will! The first two steps are published, the final 2 are still a work in progress but will join the circle soon! As cheesy as it may sound: to share IS to care.

  28. Thanks for visiting my site. Love your work…I only dream of being a photographer like you! I took a Pentax K1000 to China way back in the 80s when I was teaching there, and now I’m trying to learn this DSLR…the learning curve has been drastic! I already want another camera, though. 😉 (I wish I could pick your brain, ha!)

  29. I’ve used film before but since I was pretty young when I got my first digital camera, I’m now used to looking at the preview screen. Thanks for the post though. It’s a nice challenge 🙂

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